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UNC professor urges us to “rethink Islam”

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, March 1, 2004

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In one of the presidential debates earlier this year, ABC’s Peter Jennings asked candidate John Edwards, “…[M]any people, I think, believe that the greatest security threat to the United States in the 21st century is the possible confrontation between the West and Islam…. [C]ould you take a minute to tell us what you know about the practice of Islam that would reassure Muslims throughout the world who will be listening to you that President Edwards understands their religion and how you might use that knowledge to avoid a confrontation…?”

Edwards responded, in part, “I would never claim to be an expert on Islam. I am not.”

Ernst believes that almost all Americans lack a clear understanding of the religion that claims more than a billion adherents.

Edwards is not alone, at least according to UNC religion professor Carl Ernst, author of Following Mohammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. Ernst believes that almost all Americans lack a clear understanding of the religion that claims more than a billion adherents. Indeed, Ernst writes, many Americans are bound to a false notion of Islam as a backward, women-oppressing, fanatical, and fundamentalist religion that is responsible for the Middle East-based terrorism with which our country is at war.

Ernst also attacks the premise of Jennings’ question that there is a looming “confrontation between the West and Islam.”

A true understanding of Islam, Ernst writes, would show its rich diversity, its solid ethical principles of peacefulness, tolerance, and respect for women, and its admirable commitment to submit to the will of God. Only with this broad understanding of Islam can we put into proper perspective its aberrations that we associate with Muslims whose conduct supports Jennings’ premise of a confrontation between Islam and the West.

Leading us to a different view of Islam is not an easy task, as Ernst acknowledges in the introduction to Following Mohammad. “...[T]he subject of Islam has become so controversial that some people cannot confront it.”

As an example Ernst cites the outrage that accompanied the UNC summer reading program’s assignment of Approaching the Qur'an, a book that Ernst “enthusiastically recommended” to the program's organizers.

The opposition to this kind of “impartial and fair minded” discussion of Islam, says Ernst, makes it “painfully obvious that such a discussion is exactly what we need.”

In Following Mohammad, Ernst attempts to offer “readers the tools to reach an independent understanding of the key themes and historical settings affecting Muslims--and non Muslims--around the world today.”

To come to a more objective view, Ernst believes we must learn more about the religious underpinnings of Islam. But that is not enough. Islam does not exist in a vacuum and must be explored in its historical and cultural context.

Ernst insists that we come to terms with the great variety of Islam as it is practiced across the world.

Arabs represent only about 18 percent of the total Muslim population. More than half of all Muslims live in Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and nearby areas. These peoples, their customs, their culture, their dress, their laws, and the Islam they practice vary from region to region.

In matters of government we think of the “Islamic State” as a clearly defined concept. But the method of government is different in almost every country with a Muslim majority. For example, Saudi Arabia is a tribal monarchy operating in an uneasy alliance with the puritanical Wahhabi sect. Until the American-led intervention, Afghanistan was a Taliban-led theocracy. Turkey is, at least in theory, a secular nationalist state. Iran is an “Islamic Republic” with Western style democratic institutions that are subject to the supreme authority of Shi‘i Muslim religious leaders.

Although Ernst’s positive explanation of Islam is generally persuasive, he sometimes leaves me unconvinced. For instance, Ernst dismisses Western views about modern Islamic scientific backwardness, saying they are “based on selective amnesia” and “must once again be placed in the context of European colonialism and its justification.”

Ernst’s assertions leave even sympathetic readers without a counter to the facts presented so persuasively by informed commentators who point out that there is virtually no scientific progress in much of the Islamic world. For instance, last month Thomas Friedman wrote that “between 1980 and 1999 the nine leading Arab economies registered 370 patents (in the U.S.) for new inventions. Patents are a good measure of a society's education quality, entrepreneurship, rule of law and innovation. During that same 20-year period, South Korea alone registered 16,328 patents for inventions. You don't run into a lot of South Koreans who want to be martyrs.”

Although Ernst sometimes dismisses too quickly the ideas of those who disagree with him, Following Mohammad is a very important contribution to an informed understanding of Islam and its place in the modern world. As such, it should be required reading for Friedman, Jennings, Edwards, and everyone else who is trying to make sense of the challenges of the post 9-11 world.

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which is taking a break during the special programming for UNC-TV’s “Festival.” It will return to the air in the spring.

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UNC professor urges us to “rethink Islam”
UNC religion professor Carl Ernst
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